Children of Russian ISIS fighters return home from Iraq

Children of suspected ISIS fighters (ISIS), aged three to 10, arrive to board a Russian plane at Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec 30, 2018.
Children of suspected ISIS fighters (ISIS), aged three to 10, arrive to board a Russian plane at Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec 30, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (AFP) - Thirty Russian children whose mothers are in prison in Iraq for belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) arrived in Moscow on Sunday (Dec 30) from Baghdad, Russian authorities said.

The fathers of the children, aged three to 10 years old, are believed to have been killed in combat during Iraq's three-year war against the militants, a Russian diplomatic source told AFP before their plane departed.

"The plane of the Russian emergency situations ministry has landed," Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said on his Telegram account, adding that it had touched down at Moscow's Zhukovsky airport.

Mr Kadyrov said their arrival was "undeniable proof of the rigorous fulfilment of the mission set out by Russian President Vladimir Putin to save the women and children in Syria and Iraq".

"If we do not bring them home, they will become the target of the special services of other countries," he added.

The children were taken to hospital on arrival for "thorough examinations", the press service of Russia's health ministry said according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

Mr Kadyrov posted a video clip on the popular Russian network VKontakte of the children's departure from Baghdad, adding that 24 of them were from Dagestan, and another three were from Chechnya.

Several thousand Russians travelled to join the militants in their once sprawling "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, according to estimates from the Russian security services.

Some took their families with them.

Since last year, around 100 women and children - mostly from Russia's Muslim-majority Caucasus - have returned under a programme championed by Mr Kadyrov.

But in mid-November, Chechen activist Kheda Saratova accused Russia's FSB security service of blocking attempts to bring back the remaining widows and children of Russian Isis fighters.

"According to our organisation, there are over 2,000 of them left in Syria and Iraq," Ms Saratova, who is on Mr Kadyrov's human rights council, said at the time.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi held talks in Baghdad with Ms Anna Kuznetsova, the Russian president's envoy for the rights of children.

During the meeting, Mr Abdel Mahdi said a "distinction should be made between humanitarian issues and terrorist crimes", according to a statement from his office.

"These children are also victims," he added.

More than 300 people, including around 100 foreigners, have been sentenced to death, and many others to life imprisonment in Iraq, for joining Isis, the Sunni extremist group which at its peak controlled nearly a third of the country.

Baghdad declared victory against ISIS in December last year, but the group maintains sleeper cells and has carried out periodic hit-and-run attacks.